Tevel b’Tzedek: A Jewish take on social justice in the developing world

“Emergency aid is usually based on ‘now, now,’ but we try to bring a longer-term focus on stability and analyzing the needs of a community.”

Volunteers in Manegau, the community that hosted the one-month volunteer program, run youth programs with the youth community mobilizer, Purna (photo credit: COURTESY TEVEL B’TZEDEK)
Volunteers in Manegau, the community that hosted the one-month volunteer program, run youth programs with the youth community mobilizer, Purna
During his years as a journalist in Nepal and India, Rabbi Micha Odenheimer noticed the thousands of post-army Israelis backpacking through the region. He was also witness to extremely poor villages where residents were not able to grow enough food to sustain themselves, breeding a cycle of drugs, crime and migration.
Odenheimer saw an opportunity for a shidduch: to pair young Israelis with volunteer opportunities in Nepal. What began in 2007 with 15 Israelis living together and volunteering in the capital of Kathmandu, has evolved into a multi-pronged program, which has since brought some 1,200 volunteers to the country, most of whom work in far-flung villages.
The name Tevel b’Tzedek comes from the verse in Psalms 98: “He will judge the world with justice and peoples with equity.”
For Odenheimer, the organization is about tikkun olam, repairing the world. He recently received a special award in the Knesset from the Pears Foundation and the Society for International Development for “Israelis Working To Change Lives in Developing Nations.”
“We believe it is spiritually and ethically unacceptable that millions of people in our world don’t have sufficient nutrition, clean water, housing, basic health or education,” the organization’s website reads. “This reality can and must be changed.”
“I wondered what do we have to say about this as Jews?” Odenheimer asks in an interview in his small apartment in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood, to which he recently moved. “What is our responsibility? What is Israel’s role in this?” He created a series of programs ranging in length from one to seven months. The shortest program targets Israeli backpackers who want to spend a few weeks learning about Nepal while also volunteering. They pay about $350, which includes an introductory seminar on Nepali culture and language, and three weeks of volunteering in a village.
The four-month program is aimed at Israelis who have finished their army service and in some cases an undergraduate degree as well, and offers internship opportunities in the field of international development.
The seven-month-long fellowship program pairs an Israeli or American young Jewish professional with a Nepali counterpart in the fields of agriculture, education, health or media.
What is unique about Tevel, Odenheimer says, is that its volunteers actually live in the villages in which they work and are available full-time to help when needed.
TEVEL PROGRAMS focus on youth, women and farmers.
For example, one village in Ramechhap in central Nepal, where the organization has worked for the past five years, was not able to grow enough food to sustain itself.
As a result, during the winters, many of the villagers would migrate to cities to work in brick-making factories in dangerous conditions and for low pay.
Tevel b’Tzedek brought in seeds for vegetables, including cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli. Today, they are not only growing enough to eat, but exporting vegetables to Kathmandu every month.
“People had given up and there was a cycle of migration,” Odenheimer says. “We trained them in bringing in new crops and teaching them how to grow commercially, not just using subsistence farming. Climate change is also becoming a big problem.”
To deal with climate change and a growing shortage of water, the organization has built large water collection tanks as well as teaching farms that model the various agricultural methods. Tevel volunteers have also constructed a central water collection point, and helped farmers in the area form a collective.
Rammechhap is about seven hours by car from Kathmandu, which until recently meant that farmers in the region were unable to transport their crops for sale in the big city. But thanks to the cooperative, farmers are now able to rent a truck once a week to bring their goods to market.
Tevel b’Tzedek also focuses on local youth. One of the local Nepali fellows, Guarav Ji, 24, says the program, which includes skills workshops on various topics like the environment, has had a positive effect on youth in the area.
“We see so many changes in them,” he says. “They understand more about what is happening in Nepal and all over the world.
I see an improvement in social behavior.”
Ji says he has found his calling and wants to continue working with youth in his professional life.
Another unique aspect of Tevel b’Tzedek is its partnership between local residents, like Guara, and visiting Israeli or Diaspora volunteers.
Participating Nepali communities are viewed as partners rather than as “clients” who need to be helped. In the education program, for example, Tevel volunteers focus on teacher training, particularly early childhood education, and form “teacher clubs” for mutual support.
IN 2015, a massive earthquake in Nepal killed at least 9,000 people and left widespread damage throughout the country. Because Tevel b’Tzedek already had a large presence on the ground, including dozens of Nepali staff, they were able to offer emergency support, including tin sheeting for housing for thousands of families. They also intensified their work with farmers, women and teachers.
Tevel participants study as well as volunteer.
All of the programs include some study of Jewish texts. Some of the participants, whether from Israel or the US, keep kosher and observe Shabbat. Odenheimer says the program also strengthens ties that the American participants have with Israel as well as with Nepal.
The program’s graduates are prominent in humanitarian organizations in Israel as well.
Navonel Glick spent three years with Tevel b’Tzedek in Nepal, first as a volunteer and then as a staff member. Now he and another Tevel alum run IsraAID, an Israeli organization that provides disaster relief around the world.
As a volunteer, Glick worked with street kids who were on their own in Kathmandu often from as young as the age of five or six. Many of these children spent their days sniffing glue to get high and begging on the streets. Almost all were victims of violence.
What was hardest for him to accept, he says, is that even though there are organizations offering food and shelter for street kids, many of them choose to sleep in the street instead.
“I can’t overstate the importance that Tevel b’Tzedek has had on my life and my career,” Glick says. “Emergency aid is usually based on ‘now, now,’ but we try to bring a longer-term focus on stability and analyzing the needs of a community.”
He says that many Tevel b’Tzedek volunteers find their experience difficult, albeit rewarding.
“Inherently, when volunteering is done well, it brings an existential crisis,” Glick says. “Usually, when you walk down the street and you see a homeless person, it doesn’t feel like your responsibility. But this kind of work awakens a feeling for social connections for anyone who seeks it.
Some people [volunteers] really struggled with the poverty that they saw.”
Tevel b’Tzedek has largely focused its efforts on Nepal, although the organization also ran programs in Haiti for five years after the 2010 earthquake, and another program in Burundi, which recently ended because of a deterioration in the political situation there.
Odenheimer says the organization will continue to work and expand its operation in Nepal. He hopes to develop programs in sub-Saharan Africa, as well. Also on the agenda is a new study abroad program with the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School, in which overseas students will spend part of a semester at the university and the rest volunteering with Tevel b’Tzedek in Nepal.